Panel Says Choice’s Benefits Worth Risks

By Caroline Hendrie — November 19, 2003 8 min read
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Choice is here to stay—like it or not—so policymakers need to get smart about harnessing its power to further the goals of public education.

That’s the message of a report by the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education, which spent two years trying to get beyond divisive political rhetoric and figure out how best to give parents choices among schools receiving public money. The panel calls on federal, state, and community leaders to plan carefully so that such alternatives—including charter schools and vouchers—actually help children whose parents exercise new options, while avoiding harm to the rest.

“School Choice: Doing It the Right Way Makes a Difference,” is available online from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center of Education Policy. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“Today’s public education system encompasses a large and growing number of options providing significant choice to American parents with regard to their children’s education,” says the report, which was slated for official release on Nov. 17. “As a consequence, the discussion about ‘choice’ is not about ‘whether,’ but rather is about ‘what kind’ and ‘how much?’ ”

In general, the panel recommends providing ample funding for new schooling options, targeting benefits to disadvantaged youngsters, and rethinking existing policies so that district-run schools that are already getting shortchanged don’t suffer more under choice. Introducing choice carelessly or “on the cheap” simply won’t cut it, the report cautions.

Chaired by Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington in Seattle, the panel is made up mostly of centrist education experts whose views on choice vary, but generally do not fall at the political extremes.

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Read the accompanying table, “National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education.”

Defining choice broadly—from intradistrict magnet schools to private school vouchers— the panel did not aim to prescribe the ideal choice program. Nor did it try to resolve many of the most contentious policy issues that arise in the highly polarized debates on vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of school choice.

Instead, the report offers guidance and an analytical framework to help policymakers hash out those disputes and others. A growing number of states and localities are looking for that kind of help, the report suggests, because of the requirements for increased school choice imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Balancing Act

As new policies and programs emerge, a process of trial and error is inevitable, says the 42-page report. But the bottom line, it suggests, is that the potential payoff may well be worth the risks.

“Some believe that even careful, measured expansion of choice is a threat to public education,” the report says. “It is equally possible that, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt used the power of government to save capitalism from itself, current state and local leaders can employ the power of choice to improve their chances of achieving the great goals of public education.”

Formed in 2001, the commission set out to “take seriously both the reasonable hopes of choice proponents and the reasonable concerns of skeptics.”

Panel members fall into both camps, but are not “firebrands” for one side or the other, said Tom Loveless, a commission member who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the director of the Washington-based think tank’s Brown Center on Education Policy. The center provided staffing support to the panel, with grants from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The commission “is the first one, to my knowledge, that tried to get the debate off the extremes—where people are certain that choice will either be great or a disaster—and take on the question that if choice were to have good outcomes, what has to happen?” said Mr. Hill, who is a nonresident senior scholar at Brookings and a research professor of public affairs at the University of Washington.

The group focused on how policies can be constructed to influence positive outcomes in four basic areas: improving achievement for children who opt for alternative settings; avoiding harm to students left behind in existing schools; minimizing choice’s potential to undermine desegregation goals; and advancing democratic values.

In addition, the panel identified seven key policy levers: student targeting, funding, performance measurement, parent information, student access, regulation, and accountability. Other “individual behavior” factors that shape outcomes, the panel concluded, are parental preferences, student effort, the choice of schools available, and teachers’ response to expanded options.

Panel members found that adequate funding and reasonable government oversight can help ward off some possible pitfalls of choice programs, but they say trade-offs between competing interests are unavoidable.

“In the design of choice programs it is possible to preserve some values, like close government supervision of schools, only by trading off others, such as creation of new options,” the report says. “Similarly, it is possible to squeeze the amounts of public funds that move with children as their parents choose alternative schools, but only at the expense of more ambitious options and innovation.”

If public funding for new schooling options is inadequate, then schools will have incentives to avoid enrolling students from poor homes, those with disabilities, or pupils with limited English skills, the panel concluded.

“If you do it halfway, chances are that it won’t work very well,” Mr. Loveless said. “If a local district or city or state commits to a choice program, then they need to think it through and commit themselves fully, instead of saying, ‘Since there are a lot of people against this, then let’s just fund it at half of what we fund regular schools.’ ”

But higher funding levels entail higher risks, the report acknowledges. Moreover, it notes, “expanding choice opens up legal and philosophical issues involving support of religious schools.”

“While research can shed some light on these questions, in the end they are questions of law and philosophy,” the report says.

Among the steps communities should consider, according to the panel, are explicitly giving disadvantaged students priority; requiring “common testing” of students’ academic skills; and providing money for alternative settings that is on a par with that of regular public schools.

The report also suggests prohibiting private schools in publicly financed voucher programs from charging tuition above the voucher amount, as well as requiring nonselective admissions lotteries and publicly subsidized transportation.

And requiring schools to teach core civics courses is one way to combat the potential loss of “social cohesion” stemming from increased parental choice, the report suggests.

Responses Split

Reaction varied among analysts who reviewed advance copies of the report last week.

“It’s interesting and it’s very sound,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which backs charter schools and other forms of school choice. “I don’t think there’s anyone who advocates for choices who would disagree with any of this.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and also a strong charter supporter, said the report’s approach to accountability—that government as well as the market has an important role to play in monitoring school quality—would not satisfy those who want to decouple school and state.

Still, he said, the report’s expanded definition of public schooling “would be a huge improvement over the kind of public system we have today.”

“They really have picked very carefully and very intelligently the middle 60 percent of the choice debate, leaving a good 15 percent on either side to scream at them,” Mr. Finn said.

Meanwhile, Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, suggested that the commission’s attention was misdirected. “The whole report strikes me as devoting a lot of time, energy, and resources to solutions that aren’t going to happen,” she said.

Nancy A. Keenan, the education policy director for People For the American Way, a Washington-based advocacy organization that, like the NEA, strongly opposes public funding for private schools, also viewed the report as divorced from political reality. Analysts from such other voucher opponents as the American Federation of Teachers and Americans United for Separation of Church and State echoed that criticism.

“In a perfect world, what they’ve laid out here might make some sense,” Ms. Keenan said. “But the fact of the matter is that we live in a world [that] is politically driven. It’s not a debate around what’s good public policy.”

The notion that alternatives to regular public schools should receive funding on a par with district-managed schools is “pie in the sky,” said Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to AFT President Sandra Feldman. Equally unrealistic, in her view, is the idea that private schools receiving public funding would agree to such infringements on their autonomy as admissions lotteries.

“It reminds me of the old saying, ‘If my grandmother had a beard, she’d be my grandfather,’ ” Ms. Rosenberg said. “It’s the triumph of hope over reality.”

Yet Mr. Hill predicted that the march toward a more choice-driven system of public schooling would continue.

“I’m 60 years old, so I’ve come to believe that things happen slowly,” he said. “If we look back from 10 years from today, you’ll see a much more hybrid system of public education.”


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